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July 25th 1999 (ED: previous date was incorrect) was a National Holiday in Venezuela as it was the national election day for the Constituent Assembly. After Hugo Chavez was elected President, the expats working in the country knew the writing was on the wall for the foreign mining companies then operating in the country. The Constituent Assembly would be his rubber stamp to reinvent the country.I was working close to the iron ore region of the country in Bolivar State. I decided to take a day off and (with permission) took a company truck on a trip to try and photograph some of the rail operations in the area. Given that pretty much nothing was operating that day I would have to see what I could find. The main operations are the Ferrominera Orinoco operations between the mines and the port in Puerto Ordaz (I'll cover this operation in a separate post). I decided to tool around Puerto Ordaz in the industrial areas as I was aware that there were some rail operations there. In most places I found no one was there or I was turned away at the gate by the security people. My Spanish was passable but I suspect they were not used to having a Gringo (the term they use in Venezuela for anyone from north of the Mexico/US border) show up asking to take train photos.
I rolled up to the gates of the SIDOR plant (Siderúrgica de Orinoco C.A.), the largest Venezuelan steel corporation expecting to not get very far beyond the front gate. Surprisingly the guard passed me along the the manager on duty that day. After explaining what I was looking to do (photograph their railway operations) he mentioned that his "son collected money" and he would be interested in some foreign currency for his "collection". For those not familiar this is the usual dodge used to get a bribe. After some discussion we agreed that his son would like a US $20 bill for his collection. For whatever reason his son was not at all interested in the Canadian $20 that I offered...With his son's collection sufficiently enlarged he gave me a 40 passenger bus and told me I had 30 minutes to tour around. So it was me and a driver touring the plant in a bus. Off we went.
We stopped at the engine facility where I shot what was there in the form of various GE switchers and re-engined Alco S-4 locomotives. The crews liked the Alcos and GE units, but most of the GE were out of commission. I also was able to catch an operating Alco doing some switching, but he took off before I could get to the front of the engine so I had to settle for a rear 3/4 view instead. The driver informed me that our time was up so I returned to the front gate with my driver, thanked the manager who asked again if I had any more funds for his kid's collection. I demurred and headed off to see what else I could find. According to several people I have spoken with I maybe the only person who was able to railfan inside the SIDOR complex. The company was shut down in 2019 due to the ongoing economic issues in the country and at this point has not reopened. Ultimately this would be the last trip I made to the country as Mr. Chavez chased out all the foreign companies and essentially nationalized the gold industry in the country.
This article first appeared on ageologistchasingtrains.blogspot.com
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